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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                          47
Holding on to the pine-tree, he made another attempt to
rise and at last succeeded, but as soon as he tried to bring
his legs up to the tree he collapsed from weakness, and
from a frightful, new itching pain in the feet.
Was this the end? Was he to perish here, under the
pines, where, perhaps, nobody would find and bury his
bones, picked clean by the beasts of the forest? Over-
powering weakness pressed him to the ground. But in the
distance the guns rumbled. Fighting was going on over
there, and his own people were there. Would he be unable
to muster enough strength to cover these last eight or
ten kilometres?
The rumble of the guns put new courage into him,
called him persistently, and he responded to the call.
He got up on his hands and knees and ambled on like an
animal, at first instinctively, hypnotised by the sounds
of the distant battle, and later consciously and delib-
erately, realising that it was easier to go through the
forest this way than with the aid of the staff. Not having
to bear any burden, his feet hurt less, and he could move
faster on his hands and knees. And again he felt a lump
rising in his throat from sheer joy. As though encourag-
ing somebody else who had lost heart and doubted the
possibility of progressing in this incredible fashion, he
said aloud:
"Never mind, my boy, everything will be all right
now!"
After completing one of his laps, Alexei warmed his
frozen hands by holding them under his arm-pits, then
crept up to a young fir-tree, cut out two square pieces of
bark and, breaking his finger-nails in the process, tore
several long strips of bast from the trunk. He then took
the strips of woollen scarf from his fur boots and wound
them round his hands; over his knuckles he placed the
pieces of bark, fastened them with the bast strips and then
tied the whole with the bandage of one of the dressings.
On the right hand he thus obtained a broad and very
convenient mitten. But he was not so successful with the
left hand, which he had to tie up with the aid of his teeth.
But for all that, his hands were now "shoed", and Alexei
proceeded on his way, feeling the going easier. At the
next stop he tied pieces of bark to his knees too.